Uncovering softness

Top, October 2019

It was October, and Top stood quietly at the trailer while being groomed and saddled. When Mark bridled him and then gathered up the reins to see how Top would respond to pressure, it was clear that what Top knew was how to push. He raised his head really well too. Since these aren’t the responses we look for, Mark decided to work with Top from the ground until Top could begin to get the idea of how to let go.

Horses are already soft. They are born that way; receptive, aware, sensitive and willing. It is through our interactions with them that we either cover that up or keep it alive. We could see that Top was a nice horse who had learned to protect himself against the bit, the rider, or both. He wasn’t so defensive that he was acting out, but his defensiveness manifested itself as a constant and complete body tension. We also felt that he had learned to not say much when it came to interactions with people. Some might call this stoic. I often wonder, though, if a component of this is that he learned through consistent feedback that people are deaf so he kept how he felt to himself.

Before and after his teeth are balanced, and chiropractic.

Shortly after he arrived, we had the chance to haul him down to Happy Dog Ranch where he got his teeth balanced and a thorough session of chiropractic. Since the weather was nice, we decided to stay an extra day and work with him, to see what he thought about these new changes.

After groundwork on the first day, Mark took him back to the round pen and worked with him on the ground first before getting on. Top was more relaxed and looked more comfortable. It was all going really well until Mark asked Top to back up. Top put all of his weight on the right side of his body, moved his left foot back, threw his head to the left and almost fell over.

We see this from time to time, not only in some of the ranch horses we buy, but also with horses at clinics. They’ve been tense and imbalanced for so long that imbalance becomes their balance. Add to this that Top was ridden in a curb bit, and it became apparent pretty quickly that he knew how to do something in the context of equipment, not because he knew how to do that particular skill with a rider.

What does that mean? That as long as Top could lean on or rely on the mechanics of the curb bit, the bit would help him do the job. It’s like the training wheels got left on the bike, and once we took them off, the bike toppled over.

This isn’t to say that curb bits are bad or all horses who are ridden in curbs don’t know their job. But I do know that in Top’s case, without the curb bit he didn’t know how to move his body in a relaxed and balanced way. As it turns out, he had some trouble with forward, turning, and stopping as well.

It sheds a whole new light on how our horses learn, and what they learn. While outwardly Top could perform his job, when asked about the how, Top couldn’t answer. All he knew was which responses to the bit and the cues from the rider would get a release, but he couldn’t perform basic movements with any kind of balance in his own body. He had been trained so the outside of his body did certain tasks, but the rest of the horse wasn’t included.

These are also horses we sometimes see at clinics; outwardly skilled, but inwardly not involved in the movements. Most of the time these horses carry not only physical tension, but emotional and mental tension as well. Once we begin to show them how to balance themselves and involve them in the movement, as opposed to putting them into the movement, they begin to calm down.

Top is unlike other horses in that he is emotionally pretty balanced. We don’t often see or sense an “oh no” from him. When it does come up, if we stay quiet and give him time, he starts to reengage with us and get curious. I’ve come to see that how he feels most of the time, and how his body performs are split. It’s not a common occurrence with horses; most of the time how they feel is how they act.

Over the months that we traveled with Top to Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas, Mark worked on the same set of skills with him. Stop softly, turn softly, go forward softly, and back up softly. What all this meant was that Mark was looking for a certain feel through the reins from Top. He didn’t want a lot of pressure in his hands, nor did he want Top putting his nose to his chest. When we talk about self-carriage, what we would like to see is that a horse is able to engage their abdominals and balance themselves through any movement.

July, 2020

At a recent clinic here in Colorado, I watched as Mark asked Top to turn on his haunches, side pass, back up and stop. Everything was done with ease. As they walked around the arena helping a horse and rider beginning to go through the same process they’d been through for the past six months, I could see, in this snapshot, where Top used to be, and where he is now.

We are all somewhere along the continuum of learning. Our horses too. We can help them, and ourselves, by taking manageable steps to help fill our days with as much ease as possible. I’m looking forward to getting to know Mr. Top more, and watch as he settles into a softer way of going.

You can read more about Top here: https://crissimcdonald.com/2020/03/04/its-not-a-catching-problem/

14 responses to “Uncovering softness”

  1. Hi, beautiful write-up, could not have described my new horse any better, the softness he is seeking is awesome. My question is, ” … involve themselves in the movement, as opposed to putting them into the movement …” Will you please explain this further. Thank you, Terry

    1. Thank you, Terry.

      When we put a horse, or make a horse, perform a movement they will flee from the consequence (if this is a crop or spurs, it would be pain) of the cue but because they are in a fight or flee state of mind, they haven’t learned what they did. They learned how to get a release from pain or pressure. As an example, Top was made to go backward, and to get relief from the pressure he would do it, but he wasn’t going backward in a balanced way, he was going back because he was put in the position to be made to back. We know this because he couldn’t back up on his own, in any sort of balance. Hope that helps!

  2. look forward top hearing more about Top.and thats a great image right there!!

    1. Thanks, Chris! We are looking forward to getting to know him more too.

  3. Thanks Crissi, so reminds me my newish horse, a successful race TB so used to being told what to do, that when I asked him to do something and allowed him to think about the response he became very uncertain and hesitant. it has been fabulous over the months to watch him emerge an individual with character and charm. and your post reassured me that I was not bonkers and as you say I have watched his body and mobility change as a result. ps I had the great good fortune to attend a clinic with you both in the Uk some years back with another TB.

    1. Hello Rosemary – I’m with you: watching a horse come out of their shell and become curious about their world is one of the most beautiful experiences.

  4. Hello! Could you please change my email to lindamannix2020@gmail.com . I love your newsletters, however had to change my email recently. Thank you so very much! Linda Mannix


    1. Hi Linda – I’m not sure if I can manage WordPress email settings, but I’ll give it a go.

  5. Thank you Crissi. Your insights are essential to our understanding of the inside of the horse. I believe so many can be helped, both human and horse, with softness and the ability to offer a soft feel. Attention to the horse’s mind with a conscious approach will be returned by the horse 10 fold. Top is a good example of how these transitions can be made with the right approach…soft, with a mind like still water.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. Well said.

  6. Hi Crissy. What you write is so common sensical and logical, it seems amazing that we often do it wrong. Over the years I’ve come to look at horses kinda like raising little kids. For instance, in our barn I sometimes see folks asking a horse to move over by shoving a hard hand into their side with a big push. If we ask ourselves, how would I get my 2 year old to move a bit, the answer is easily clear. Ask politely and softly so they will always trust you. If I pushed on a 2 year old, they’d probably cry!! So when a new question comes up, the answer is often pretty simple if I put that 2 year old in my horse’s place. Once I looked at it this way it took the somewhat mystery of communication away. We know what our kids need and I find the horses respond so well to the same behavior. Your so well explained piece seems to really speak to this uncomplicated logic regarding communication. As always, I so appreciate what you and Mark do to help us all make life better for horses. You guys really rock!!

    1. Hi Janie! Thank you for your perspective, and your kind words. You are right: there are many parallels between how we would politely ask children (or adults, for that matter) 😉 to do something for us. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. Hope you are doing well, and you’re happy and healthy and enjoying the summer! xo

  7. Love your posts. Always considering the horse and our part in it. Thank you for teaching me and reminding me about softness and so much more!!!

    1. Hi Kathy – thank you for your kind words! This softness stuff is a lifetime journey. 🙂

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